Don’t Allow Libya to Define R2P

March 13, 2012     
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Ever since the military involvement in Libya there has been an increasing debate, even a buzz, about whether or not it sets a precedent for future action in protecting civilians against state violence. The debate is further complicated by the current stalemate on taking action in Syria. This leads some critics to claim that the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), as a concept, has been damaged or made more difficult, however, they are mistaken.

First, R2P should not be judged on the basis of the military response in Libya. Somewhere along the way, R2P has become synonymous with military intervention. Just last week, Alex de Waal made the argument in the New York Times against the perceived “idealism” of R2P. His argument relies on a misunderstanding of the concept as the use of military means towards the ends of democracy and justice. The reality is that the original International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) report, released in 2001 made clear that the implementation of R2P is about the protection of civilians, should be considered primarily preventative and considers military action a very last resort.

To follow up from Garth Evans’ response to the article, the intention behind the doctrine is to reset the dialogue around sovereignty, as a responsibility, and to establish a set of criteria upon which to base any future intervention in humanitarian crisis – whether through diplomatic political and economic means, or if and when it is needed, the use of the military. Even with the current situation in Syria, it remains vitally important that employing the words “Responsibility to Protect “ in an international resolution need not mean military intervention. There are a variety of such options being looked such as the provision of “safe zones” or “humanitarian corridors” in an effort to protect civilians along the border with Turkey. Or the possibility of an armed group of observers or “peacekeeping” force on the ground, as proposed by the Arab League, would all increase pressure on Assad to end his violent campaign and negotiate a transition without the actual use of force. President Obama makes the case that the increasing bite of more robust sanctions will have a withering effect on the Assad government.

If anything, it is not the doctrine itself, but its misinterpretation which could cause the most harm, if it is to be discounted. This indeed is the case in the Middle East where there has been a variety of initiatives taken that have helped in the restraint on violence and in several cases changes in government or it’s behavior that have not yet been identified as falling under R2P. Take Yemen as an example, where negotiated amnesty for President Saleh led to a more or less peaceful ending to what may have otherwise been a lengthy crisis. This is R2P in action. As is Kofi Annan’s current involvement in Syria, so pointed out by Roland Paris yesterday.

Another question that is raised has to do with the Russian and Chinese veto on Syria. No question that this has set back the UN ’s credibility. There has to be a response to this quandary. Again, it seems appropriate to refer back to the original ICISS report. One of those ideas is working to create a “code of conduct” by the permanent members to refrain from using the veto on initiatives that are designed to protect people and apply R2P principles. While not a perfect solution, it would offer a midway point between the current status quo – which is threatening the legitimacy of council – and total reform, which would be difficult to say the least. The term applied in the report is “constructive abstention” and it remains under explored as an option. Those who discount it are caught in a myopic insiders view of what is acceptable to the P-5, instead of looking at the broader necessity of UN reform and change.

I mention this in particular because this is one initiative that Canada could take on that I believe would win favor, at least with non permanent members of the UN. It would help offset some of the dissatisfaction with the Security Council and require the Chinese and Russians to explain more thoroughly what their position is when it comes to R2P. Canada as the original sponsor of the idea would have credibility in promoting this kind of reform.

There is a very real possibility that this rebellion in Syria could erupt into a civil war, which could have long term destabilizing and terrifying consequences for the region as whole. This increasing risk shows how closely R2P is linked to the fundamental mandate of the Security Council in promoting peace and stability. There needs to be active and purposeful action to try and restore credibility to UN Security Council and underline the necessity of the international community taking action against mass murder and serious threat to civilian lives — the very essence of the Responsibility to Protect.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.

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